The Last Day of The Ugly Man
by Charles C. Cole
That crazy crush of humanity I witnessed was the twilight of civilization. In the morally bankrupt city of Medes, the seething pack of faceless vigilantes cornered the neighborhood pariah, Jonah Kecksinbach, or simply The Ugly Man, on the tenth floor of an abandoned apartment building, his once secret sanctuary becoming an escape-proof trap.
Someone he trusted — probably the grocer on 73rd — had ratted him out. I felt a charge in the air, as when a storm is coming, and I watched as the snarling wolf pack suddenly swelled on the narrow sidewalk in numbers too many to count, spilling into the street, forcing traffic to stall. No one dared honk at them.
I tried to warn him, rushing down an alley, just ahead of the violence. I even tried to stop them. I rode the painfully slow freight elevator, but the grilled door was chained on that floor. I couldn’t get out, be of any use, could only watch from my cage as they flooded the hallway, swarming from the stairwell exits, with their hoodies low and their bats held high.
He surprised them when he didn’t whimper, when he stepped forward to face them for the last time, upright like a grand statesman, with ten times more dignity than they themselves possessed collectively. All the while, there was an eerie silence as they committed themselves to the human sacrifice they’d hastily planned.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” he began, as if he were finishing a conversation started long ago. “You’ve come to kill me. Come to get your working-class revenge, even though I haven’t hurt anyone or done anything to deserve this. I’m innocent, by any real measure, but that means nothing here and now. Does it? We’ve seen this confluence of abject fear and loathing amassing for weeks, months, haven’t we?
“That’s okay because I’ve been waiting for death all my life, whenever I had a quiet moment to think. With my hideous looks, opportunities were hard to come by. Girls, too. When my father was laid off from his construction work, it was my fault. When my high-strung, pill-dependent mother had a nervous breakdown, I was to blame. I drove them to it, like I drove you here.
“Having to look at me every day has that effect. No wonder. Miracle of patience you’ve all lasted this long. A man this ugly can’t be good, can’t live a normal purposeful life. A man this ugly was born to be a criminal mastermind or the troll of Central Park who snacks on swans and small children.
“Believe what you like. You already do. Condemn me with your callous, self-serving justice. But I’m going to my personal savior with a clear conscience, and He won’t turn me away because, with your help, I’m leaving this tortured, haggard body behind at long last. I’ll be reborn normal like you, or even better. So thank you, and know that through your violence, I will triumph over the lot of you at long last.”
Then, spurned by his pious posturing, the angry mob stirred, alighting on his position. All at once, they were on him. I yelled for them to stop, cursed and pleaded. Nobody heard me over his screams and their cheering. They were actually cheering.
I needed air; I couldn’t breathe. I was delirious, fevered, weak and, more than anything, heavy. I took the elevator to the lobby, knowing full-well they would be finished with him soon: I’d failed him.
In my mind, I had planned to protect him from everyone, the whole prejudiced world. But how? And not just because he was my friend, because I don’t think we ever became “true friends” in the usual sense; certain events and rigid social structures precluded that.
Still, I was going to protect him because he was the underdog and it was, for me, somehow an elitist and snobby thing to do, sheer arrogance, to presume I was the only one who “saw” the “real” man of character beneath The Ugly Man. I alone was right; everyone else was wrong. They, the mindless rabble, had it all disturbingly wrong.
I was standing on the sidewalk across the street when they threw him off the roof. They’d tell you, to a man, he panicked, pickled in his own guilt, and jumped, so desperate to get away. His body fell like a dark, shapeless mass. I didn’t have time to turn away. It was a lifeless lump, impersonal, just a big black sack. Or maybe a miraculous human-sized cocoon.
Because, about two flights down, this thing that didn’t belong where it was, high up in the air, hit a lamp, which exploded in fragments of white dusty light, and something completely unexpected burst skyward out of the mundane wreckage of his clothes: a monstrously beautiful, glowing great blue heron, flying like a rocket straight up to the heavens.
Those on the tenth floor saw it too, even Landers Robley, the self-appointed ringleader, the one with the most to gain politically, the inciter. Even from a distance, I could see he was enthralled and terrified in the same moment, like looking on Judgment Day, uncertain which team will take him.
Landers leaned out the window to see more clearly in the dim light, crowding the others aside and, somehow, he lost his delicate footing and, before anyone near him could react, he too fell down the same steep path. No heron, not this time, just human skin and filler, blood and bones, moldy and brittle clay.
And the blue heron — graceful, majestic, heroic — soared once around the building, as if it was no effort at all, maybe testing his new wings or maybe showing off now that he finally had something to brag about. Big as a car! Then he flew away, without a sound, without looking back, straight on toward the setting sun. He was gone forever, leaving the startled mortals to pick up the debris of our action and inaction.
Copyright © 2017 by Charles C. Cole